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What does it take to become a conductor?

By Sigurd Neubauer


Have you ever aspired to conduct an orchestra – whether it is from the podium or from comfort of your seat while taking in a majestic performance at a concert hall or at an opera house – if so, you’re not alone. “Over the past several years, there has been a surge in interest in becoming a conductor,” explains Toby Purser who is Head of Conducting at the Royal College of Music in London.

On whether the surging interest in becoming a conductor is tied to a romantic vision of what it means to lead an orchestra, the Maestro and Professor points to two factors. The first, he says, is YouTube “where there are so many videos of conductors performing their artistry, and the second is that there are now so many conducting courses and competitions available. And there are just more and more of them,” he adds.

For instance, in the Austrian capital of Vienna there are around 60 spots for students pursuing a master’s degree in conducting between the various music academies. At the Royal College, in contrast, there are only four. “The number of people applying for these degree programs is just massive,” Purser notes, but points out that some of the interest in the profession also stems from how visible conductors have become through social media and film. “More people are aware and interested in conducting partly because of being inspired by role models such as Gustavo Dudamel.”

The Venezuelan-born Dudamel – who is the incoming Maestro of The New York Philharmonic – has popularized the profession “because he’s so inspiring. A lot of people think; ‘I want to be just like him,’” Purser says while adding that they’re drawn to it through a combination of admiration for his personal story (he came from humble roots) and his musical interpretation. 

“What the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela represents is so inspiring, but what makes Dudamel so unique is the combination of his personal humility and artistic brilliance. He’s simply a wonderful conductor,” he says.

Commenting on the steep challenges his conducting students face once they leave the College, the Professor points out that there are only a few jobs available and securing a position is beyond competitive.

Toby Purser is a graduate of Oxford University and of the Royal Academy of Music. Photo credit: Courtesy  

If I could only choose one opera to conduct before I die, it would be the Marriage of Figaro. To me, it’s the perfect opera, musically, psychologically, and with Mozart’s uncanny ability to express so many layers of psychology, drama, and emotion within such a classical language: Purser

Because of the competition – although one is not required to have studied conducting to become a maestro – most of the younger generations have completed a masters in conducting simply to be selected to compete. “In order to land a position, one is often required to win a conducting competition, which often tacitly requires having a masters in the artform already,” Purser reveals. The Professor also advises his students to explore every possibility. “They should think about what makes them unique. Once they figure out how they can best stand out, one needs to determine how to best develop that particular skill set and what the right environment for that is. Next, of course, one needs to find an agent,” he says.

An aspiring conductor could either create his own orchestra or be invited to join one. Another alterative, the Professor explains, is to secure a position with an opera house, especially in Germany, Austria, or Italy, where one can pursue a lifetime career at the institution. “At a European opera house, one can climb the ranks over a career starting with Second or Third Kapellmeister to First Kapellmeister and eventually Music Director.” But there are many routes to become a conductor, Purser says, but emphasizes that it is important for every student to determine what’s important for them. “But this can be hard for young students as they often still don’t know who they are themselves yet, and in what field they want to specialize career-wise,” which is why he spends a significant amount of time at the College mentoring and guiding his students.

Another challenge that students face, especially for those living in London, is that pursuing a career in music is expensive and once they graduate, the jobs don’t necessarily pay well. “One can always take out a student loan, but that means that it could take a long time paying it off. We don’t want the profession to be contingent upon coming from a wealthy family,” he says. 

Purser is also adamant about passing on what he has learned, including from the mistakes that he’s made. “When I was a student, I thought I am going to be the next Herbert von Karajan (1908–1989) or Claudio Abbado but l didn’t know how to build a career.”  In hindsight, he is satisfied with how everything turned out as a jet setting lifestyle as a conductor traveling from city-to-city and spending every night at a different hotel room wasn’t for him. Instead, Purser is content with the ability to balance between performing, teaching, mentoring while maintaining a family life.  

What the Professor tells his students is that they need to determine what kind of a career they’d like to pursue. For example, do they want the jet setting lifestyle of Purser’s student colleague – the maestro par excellence, Edward Gardner – or do they maybe want to work full-time in an opera house?

“Because I have taken time to find my own way, it has made me aware of where I didn’t get things right, which are experiences that I share with my students,” he explains.  The College is also committed to fostering diversity and artistic excellence, he adds.

Purser advises his students to determine what kind of a career they'd like to pursue. Photo credit: Arno

Growing up with the classical radio station 

For Purser, his initial interest in music was inspired by a recording of Antonín Dvořák’s (1841-1904) Symphony No. 9 – also known as the New World Symphony – by legendary Italian conductor Carlo Maria Giulini (1914-2005). “It was the first piece of music that I can remember,” Purser reveals, adding that he began playing piano at “the relatively late age” of eight. Throughout his childhood, his musically inclined mother would listen to the local classical radio station while driving. “While my mother was only an amateur pianist, both my parents supported my musical aspirations and they never questioned the importance of what I was pursuing,” he recalls.

While Purser studied at Winchester College (High School), he happened to stumble on what he describes as “a wonderful coincidence” when he participated in an outreach program for students pairing up with senior citizens interested in classical music. In 1990, when Purser was 16 years old, he was about to have a rendezvous with destiny: He was paired up with Donald Leggatt who immediately asked him: “What book are you reading,” the Professor recalls, telling him: ‘The Point of the Stick:’ A Handbook on the Technique of Conducting by Sir Adrian Boult (1888-1983). “He was my teacher,” Donald exclaimed before challenging Purser: “If you bring your baton next week, I’ll teach you,” which, of course, the student couldn’t resist. 

From there, Purser, put together an orchestra comprised of his friends, and Donald Leggatt also issued a letter of recommendation to study conducting under Professor George Hurst (1926-2012) at the Canford Summer School of Music. Hurst provided Purser with the ultimate compliment: “I cannot tell you whether you’ll make it as a conductor, but I know that you should try,” which was the encouragement that he needed. Next, Purser moved in 1996 to St. Petersburg, Russia, to study under Ilya Musin (1903-1999). “He was 93 years old at the time, but I studied with ‘the iconic conductor’ for two years, before returning to study for a Masters in Conducting at the Royal Academy of Music under Colin Metters, who is another iconic teacher.”

Once Purser entered what he describes laughingly as “the big bad world,” he points out that “nothing that he had trained for” had prepared him for becoming a professional conductor. 

Purser conducts the Philharmonia at Royal Albert Hall, October 2022. Photo credit: Courtesy

What he had not learned, for instance, was how to train an orchestra and what the correct physiological balance between the conductor and a professional orchestra is. “A professional orchestra is by definition different from a student one,” the Professor recalls. In light of these experiences, what Purser wants to do is pay-it-forward by teaching his students what it takes to be a conductor relevant to the twenty-first century – as opposed to just learning how to conduct the established core repertoire, such as a symphony by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).  

Responding to what the gaps are between studying conducting and leading an orchestra, the Professor says the biggest gap was not knowing how to rehearse. “What I realized is that nothing prepares one for conducting a professional orchestra the first time,” something that he equates to “swimming underwater at first, where everything is muffled, blurry as it is difficult to understand how the sounds heard relate to one’s physicality.”

A professional orchestra, in contrast to a student or amateur orchestra, “sits back on the beat and has its own way of providing a cultured, lush sound.” But “an inexperienced orchestra looks for the conductor for every detail, but a more experienced one only needs the conductor for certain things because the musicians will already play with a sense of ensemble as they breathe together as if one organism.”

As a conductor, Purser’s goal is to be clear so that the music is right, but he cannot leave anything to chance. “Because professional musicians mostly already know how to play, what the conductor can do at the performance, which the orchestra cannot do so easily for itself, is to provide a sense of line and structure.” To draw home his point, the Professor refers to how one can perform an 80-minute-long symphony by Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), which requires the conductor to be “like an eagle” over the musical landscape, knowing where the starting point is, and where the endpoint is, and how to get there. 

For an orchestra without a conductor, drawing a musical line is much harder as each musician has the music in front of them but not the complete musical picture
The legendary Herbert von Karajan serves as an inspiration to Purser. Photo credit: Deutsche Grammophon

For an orchestra without a conductor, drawing this musical line, he explains, is much harder as each musician has the music in front of them but not the complete musical picture. “And the musicians have probably not spent years studying the piece and how to prepare it as a whole,” Purser says, pointing out that structure and the right amount of flexibility are what is required from a conductor. 

Another topic that is important is trust.

“When I was a student, not once did any of my professors discuss trust and what it takes to earn it from the orchestra,” Purser says, which is something that he consistently emphasizes as a critical virtue to exhibit to his students. “When you trust an orchestra, it trusts you back. The orchestra performs better as a result as it is empowered and respected,” he says.

Purser conducts the Royal College of Music Philharmonic, April 2023 . Photo credit: Chris Christodoulou

On whether Purser’s approach represents a generational change in comparison to say Karajan; Fritz Reiner (1888-1963); Karl Böhm (1894-1981); or Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) – who were some of the greatest conductors of the twentieth century – the Professor believes that history might have a ‘lopsided’ view of them.

By that, he means, “the leadership that was exhibited during that period is different from today. 

How they led is not something any conductor today would aspire to,” Purser explains but emphasizes that he wants to be provocative when drawing the distinction. “Today, exhibiting any hint of tyrannical leadership at the podium would be paramount to career suicide,” he says with a laugh. “There were many conductors from that era who were not ‘dictators.’ But what the great conductors had in common – despite their different styles – is that they knew how to hear what the orchestra required to achieve the musical vision, which is to say, that they knew instinctively what was needed.”

“In the culture in which Reiner and Arturo Toscanini (1867-1954) operated, there was a sort of iron fist of behavior which is definitely not the way in which we behave now. At the same time, the conductor received what the orchestra gave. It was sometimes performing through fear, but the performances were great because they were passionate, and the music-making was inspiring. This was particularly true for Karajan. His physical style was full of softness and expression, supple and sensual. One always gets back the sound which is shown,” Purser explains.

For Karajan this meant that he was able to ‘collect’ the sound he wanted to hear and share it with the orchestra. Bruno Walter (1876-1962) or Pierre Monteux (1875-1964) were collegial conductors, the Maestro adds.


Mozart’s belief in the innate goodness of humanity shines through in The Marriage of Figaro where the music manages to be noble, emotional, lovingly tender and sublime all at the same time: Purser
The Royal College of Music, London. Photo credit: Arno
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